In our last episode with the Ents, we bring everything together and tell the entire Entish story from their creation right through to what happens after the end of "The Lord of the Rings." From the history of the Entwives during the Second Age to unknown Entish battles fought during the War of the Ring, the story is full of tragic loss, epic engagements, incredible longsuffering, and a steady glimmer of Tolkienian hope that always seems to shine through, even in the darkest of circumstances.
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Hi. Welcome to “The Halfling.” I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is episode 18, “Entish Tragedy, Sorrow, and Hope.”
We’ve spent the last few episodes going through everything there is to know about Ents. We covered the origin of the villain turned hero, Treebeard. We saw the Entish origin story morph into an important part of “The Silmarillion” creation story. We dug into the details about what Ents look like and how they live. Last time we even broke down the different groups within Entish culture, including the Ents, Entwives, Entings, and Huorns.
This week, we’re going to bring all of this together and tell the story of the Ents. And, I’ll warn you now, if you couldn’t tell from the title of the episode, it’s not a very uplifting tale. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, like any good tale, it’s chock full of epic events, scorched earth warfare, and plenty of unrequited arboreal romance. Alright, you ready? Let’s get this thing rolling.
After the Valar Yavanna asks for the Ents to be created, we don’t hear much about their activities for quite a while. Presumably, they’re busy shepherding trees and tending to growing things for a really long time. In the First Age, we only hear about them once, when they help a group of Elves defeat a roguish Dwarven army. After that, the tree-folk fade into anonymity for the rest of the age. It isn’t until the Second Age that we finally see them come into the limelight a bit. Even then, though, it isn’t the isolated Ents that we see much of. It’s the Entwives.
During the earlier struggles with Morgoth and the Elves, we’re told that the Entwives migrate eastward from the Fangorn region. They cross the Great River, Anduin — that’s the river that the Fellowship of the Ring sail down in boats thousands of years later. Once on the other side of the water, they set up shop in the area just south of Mirkwood. This country is eventually referred to as the “Brown Lands,” and if you think that’s not a very Entish-sounding name, that’s because it isn’t. The Brown Lands moniker comes later, after the events that we’re about to hear. At first, though, the Entwives settle down and become very prosperous tilling the earth, planting gardens, and generally improving the region. In fact, we’re not just talking about a cute little decorative garden in your front lawn. Treebeard refers to things like fields of corn. You know, full-scale agricultural stuff.
At the time of this migration, the forests of Middle-earth are still sprawling, and the Ents are able to easily visit the Entwives and Entmaidens in their new horticultural haven. This is good, because the Ents don’t go with their mates to live in the Brown Lands. They remain loyal to their wild forest lives. But the attraction is still there, so they visit from time to time. In the centuries after Morgoth’s fall at the end of the First Age, there’s a significant chunk of time where there isn’t a primary villain directing events. Sauron is in hiding for a long while and, while life is hard, the world, including the Entish areas, is technically in relative peace. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s living comfortably, though. Men tend to have a particularly hard go of it. In fact, this is the part of the story where Tolkien famously condenses the human experience by simply stating that the lot of Men was unhappy. But there’s one area where they seem to catch a break, and it has to do with the Entwives. The author specifically mentions that many of the Men in the areas around the Brown Lands actually learn agricultural skills from the Entwives. This isn’t just a passing experience, either. The Entwives are so renowned for their ability to grow gardens and crops that they become greatly honored by Men, all while the still-legendary Ents remain tucked away in their hidden forest dwellings.
As the age wears on, this idyllic situation for the Entwives slowly shifts. Things start to change around them and the forests begin to shrink, too. There isn’t a single reason for this contraction, but if you piece together different parts of Tolkien’s writings, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of industrial activity going on. The Númenóreans begin to settle on the shores of Middle-eart away to the west, and they cut down huge numbers of trees for their ships, cities, and other colonizing efforts. Wars also take place between Sauron and the Elves and Númenóreans, and over the course of several centuries, these likely destroy a large quantity of the forests, too.
During this time, the Ents stay safely tucked away in their downsized woodland homes and the Entwives keep tending to their gardens, but the physical gap between them continues to widen. They see each other less and less, until finally there’s a long break between visits. During this period, Sauron is confronted by the famous Last Alliance of Elves and Men. The armies pass by Fangorn and the Brown Lands on their way to Mordor, where they fight a knock-down, drag-out war that lasts for years and ends with Sauron losing his Ring.
After all of the drama simmers down, the Ents decide that it’s about time they visited their better halves again. Treebeard specifically mentions a great desire and longing to see his Entmaiden girlfriend, Fimbrethil. So, he and some of the Ents leave Fangorn and journey over to visit the Gardens of the Entwives. Except, when they arrive, they find that the entire region is a wasteland. It’s been turned into a desert, with everything burned and uprooted. Remember the whole “Brown Lands” bit? Yeah. Here’s where the name comes from. While the area is a war-torn waste, though, there’s no sign of the Entwives themselves. No corpses or …trunks? Not sure how to describe that. Anyway, there’s no actual sign of what happened to the Entwives themselves. This leads the Ents to embark on an event formally known as the Search of the Ents. Treebeard summarizes this by saying, “Long we called, and long we searched; and we asked all folk that we met which way the Entwives had gone. Some said they had never seen them; and some said that they had seen them walking away west, and some says east, and others south. But nowhere that we went could we find them. Our sorrow was very great. Yet the wild wood called, and we returned to it.” He goes on to explain that the Ents would band together and head out searching for the Entwives over and over again for many years. They would walk all over the place, adding that they would call them by their beautiful names. But the search was in vain. They couldn’t discover the Entwives. They couldn’t even find out what had happened to them or where they had gone. And eventually, they grew tired and wandered less often and not as far. I know that we’re talking about fantastical living trees here, but the loss of the Entwives and the unfulfilled potential of the Ents and Entwives is one of the great tragedies of Middle-earth history.
Once the Ents give up, they console themselves, not by writing songs or stories about their tragedy, but by simply chanting the names of their lost loved ones to themselves. See what I mean? I’m tearing up here. The Men and Elves who witness the event have a bit more to say about the story, though. They write songs, and Treebeard even sings one of them to Merry and Pippin. While it’s sad, it does hold out a slender thread of hope that the two halves of the Entish race will, one way or another, meet again one day. In fact, this theme of their eventual reunion is brought up more than once. And it’s worth pointing out, like we already talked about in detail in the last episode, that Treebeard does ask Merry and Pippin if they heard of Entwives in their homeland. And then there’s the walking tree that Sam’s cousin Halfast sees near the Shire, and the Old Forest full of Huorns. There are still plenty of Entish things going on around Middle-earth, even at the end of the Third Age. The fact that Treebeard still asks about the Entwives, though, that’s what’s really telling here. Even thousands of years later, the old Ent is still hanging on to the hope that he’ll see the Entwives, and Fimbrethil, again.
In the meantime, the Ents continue to live on, hidden in the forest. They become more and more of a legend. But not a local one. For instance, Legolas is well aware of the old stories of the Ents when he travels through Fangorn with Aragorn and Gimli. While the stories endure, though, the Ents fade from active history. They don’t get involved in anything again — as far as we know — until Merry and Pippin stumble on the old tree herder in “The Two Towers.” This is the point that we’re all familiar with, right? The Ents decide to attack Saruman at Isengard. They rouse a bunch of their Huorns and go on the offensive. This stops the Wizard dead in his tracks, and frees up the Rohirrim to ride south and save Minas Tirith.
But the Entish role in the War of the Ring doesn’t stop there. There’s one more part that the Ents play on the periphery of the story. During the war in Gondor, the area near Isengard is invaded again, this time by some of the Dark Lord Sauron’s soldiers. Treebeard explains these invaders after the fact, saying, and I’ve got to give you this one verbatim, “For there was a great inrush of those, burárum, those evileyed-blackhanded-bow-legged-flint-hearted-clawfingered-foulbellied-blodthirsty, morimaite-sincahonda, hoom well, since you are hasty folk and their full name is as long as years of torment, those vermin of orcs…” After exclaiming this utterly Entish, adjective-filled expletive, Treebeard adds that the invading Orcs come over the Great River and down from the northern lands of Middle-earth and attack both Lothlorien and the area around Fangorn and eastern Rohan. While Galadriel and Celeborn’s people take care of business in their own realm, the Ents step up to the plate to protect the temporarily undermanned lands of Rohan further south. The Ents surprise the invading Orcs, who had never heard of them before, and most of them are killed by the Ents or drowned trying to swim the nearby Great River. While we don’t see this happen in real time, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a really big deal. If the Ents don’t stop this army, either Rohan would have been pillaged during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or, possibly, Théoden and his Riders would have had to turn back and defend their homeland, failing to save Minas Tirith in the process. While this second option is possible, it’s more likely that Rohan would have just been ransacked while the Rohirrim focused on the much bigger threat attacking Gondor. Why do I say that? Because as the Riders of Rohan are racing toward Gondor at top speed in “The Return of the King,” it says “And as they rode rumour came of war in the North. Lone men, riding wild, brought word of foes assailing their east-borders, of orc-hosts marching in the Wold of Rohan.” That’s the invading army that the Ents destroy. At the moment, though, Eomer tells his men to ride on and that it’s too late to turn aside.
After all of this drama, the Ents focus on rebuilding — or, I guess replanting. When the War of the Ring ends, they turn Isengard into a garden called the Treegarth of Orthanc. When Aragorn, Gandalf, Galadriel, and the rest of their friends visit on their long journey home from battle and war, the new King of Gondor gives the area to the Ents and encourages them to expand their new realm back into western regions where forests used to grow. But Treebeard sadly says that the forests may keep growing, but his people won’t, due to the lack of Entings. When Aragorn points out that they can resume their search for the Entwives away to the east now that Sauron is destroyed, Treebeard just shakes his head and says, “It is far to go. And there are too many Men there in these days.” It’s the reply of an individual who is worn down by the cares of a very, very long life.
As a final note on the Entwives, I’m sad to say that there’s a good chance that Treebeard was wise to give up the hopeless search. See, in a letter in 1954, Tolkien was asked about the Entwives. As he does with most things in his world, he doesn’t give a straight up answer. Instead, he approaches the issue as something that he, himself, hasn’t heard a good answer about yet. You know, as if he’s hearing about real historical events from some third-party source. In spite of the hesitation, he does say that he thinks the Entwives had disappeared for good, adding that they were probably destroyed in their gardens when Sauron adopted a scorched earth policy during the War of the Last Alliance. He does mention that a few of the Entwives might have survived the catastrophe and escaped into the east of the continent. Even if that happened, though, he adds the somber thought that, perhaps, some were captured and enslaved by the Dark Lord, working the agricultural fields that helped feed Sauron’s armies.
For all the tragedy, though, there is a slight glimmer of hope in the Entwife narrative that makes it to the end of the story. First, Tolkien points out that the Entwives absolutely survived in spirit through the agricultural information that they taught to Men. On top of that, there’s the fact that the Ents themselves have a belief that they’ll meet their other halves in a later time to come. Treebeard specifically says, “We believe that we may meet again in a time to come, and perhaps we shall find somewhere a land where we can live together and both be content. But it is foreboded that that will only be when we have both lost all that we now have.” The last line of the Elvish song that he sings to Merry and Pippin also mentions this. It says, “Together we will take the road that leads into the West, and far away will find a land where both our hearts may rest.”
When Treebeard says goodbye to Galadriel in “The Return of the King,” the Lady of Lorien also prophesies of a future time when she will meet Treebeard, “Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willo-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring. Farewell!”
The last time we see Treebeard is when he says goodbye to Merry and Pippin for the last time. And even here, we get one final glimpse of the long-enduring hope that his people will once again be whole. After sharing a final Ent-draught together and warning the Hobbits to take care, he says goodbye, adding the final line “And don’t forget that if you hear any news of the Entwives in your land, you will send word to me.” After that, he waves to the group and walks into the trees, taking the legendary tale of the Ents with him back into the wild woods.
And that’s it. That’s the end of the Ents as far as we’re concerned. Tolkien doesn’t give us any more info about what happens to them after the War of the Ring, and since he doesn’t clarify, we won’t either. The last thing I want to say here is a bit about how the Ents represent Tolkien’s well-known views about nature and the environment — and his antipathy toward industrialization. In his biography, it literally describes Treebeard as “the being who was the ultimate expression of Tolkien’s love and respect for trees.” Throughout his life Tolkien clearly demonstrated that he loved nature, and especially revered trees. They play many prominent roles in both his writing and his actual life. Treebeard’s anger toward Saruman’s industrial activities also seems to serve as a venting point for the old professor to rail against the modern destruction caused by technological “advancement” taking place in his lifetime — an yes, I put “advancement” in air quotes.
While the environmental connection between the Ents and Tolkiens’ love of nature is easy to connect, though, I like to point to one other relatable itch that the Ents finally scratch. I’m talking about Macbeth. See, in a letter written in June of 1955, Tolkien talks about how he discovered Ents as he wrote the story. He says that he’s grown to like them. At one point, he adds that if he had to figure out where their inspiration came from, he would say they are composed of philology, literature, and life. After briefly breaking down the philological aspect of their name, he adds the punchy explanation that “Their part in the story is due, I think , to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of the ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’ : I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.” I gotta say, discovering that the “moving forest” in Macbeth was just a bunch of men holding branches was a bitter disappointment for me too. I always have and always will prefer the Ents marching to war with their Huorns behind them.
Hrum, Hoom… That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.